Internet Explorer RC1: The Technologizer Review

The almost-final version isn't bad. But it's showing its age in multiple ways.

By  |  Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 11:02 am

Tabs. IE 7 finally brought tabs to Microsoft’s browser; IE 8 introduces some refinements. A new concept called Tab Groups color-codes and bunches together related tabs, such as all the ones spawned by links you clicked on a particular page. It makes them easier to spot among other, unrelated tabs, and you can close an entire Tab Group with a single click. Tab behavior remains one of the toughest things for a browser to get right, though–what seems intuitive to one user may baffle another–and I still find that IE 8 is more likely to open up additional browser windows than Firefox, reminding me of the bad old days before any browser did tabs.

IE 8 also provides a thumbnail browser for all open tabs, which could in handy if you (like me) tend to have a gazillion of ’em open at a time:

Internet Explorer 8 Tab Preview

And when you open a new tab, IE now uses what would otherwise be empty real estate to provide links to some tasks you might want to perform:

Internet Explorer New Tab

Other aspects of the user interface. They haven’t changed much from IE 7. There are some welcome tweaks–at last, the dialog box for finding text in a page sits above the page rather than on top of it, where it can obscure the text you’re searching for–but much of the cruft that IE has built up over the past decade and a half remains.

IE’s approach to menus is sillier than ever: The ones over on the right side of the page now include six that are identified with icons and three that are labeled with text, and they’re still missing basic features like the ability to find text in a page. Add the old-style menus, and that’s a total of fourteen menus (with mostly overlapping functionality) to contend with. (Google Chrome grinds down its menus to only two.)

I’m also not sure why IE still calls its preferences “Internet Options” and mixes browser-specific controls with ones relating to Windows Internet connections; maybe IE has had this approach for so long that Microsoft worries that it would confuse people if it changed. But it puts so many settings in one place that it’s a challenge to find the one you’re looking for even if it’s there.

Also puzzling: Why does IE tell you that subscribing to an RSS feed will put it in your Common Feed List–but doesn’t explain what that is (even in its Help system, as far as I can tell)? Why doesn’t it give you the more useful information that subscribing to a feed wil add it to the Explorer Bar on the left-hand side of the page?

An IE 8 that had sported a sweeping interface makeover a la the one Microsoft applied to Office 2007 could have been refreshing…even exciting. (It would have also likely resulted in a browser that looked a lot like Chrome.) Maybe Microsoft considered blowing up IE and starting from scratch but decided that doing so would be asking too many people to relearn too much of what they already knew.

Security and stability. Microsoft is clearly working overtime to counteract its browser’s historical association with shaky security. IE 8 is the first browser I can remember that dedicates an entire menu (the appropriately named “Safety”) to matters of security and privacy. It includes the new InPrivate mode which leaves no traces as you browse; InPrivate filtering (which lets you block content that Web companies might use to track your wandering across multiple sites); SmartScreen (a phishing filter); the ability to view a site’s privacy policy; and more:

Internet Explorer 8 Safety Menu

Like Chrome, IE’s address bar now highlights the domain name within a URL by putting it in black and the rest of the URL in grey. I find this kinda fussy, but the goal–to help you figure out where you really are on the Web and thereby foil phishers–is noble:

Internet Eplorer 8 URL

Some of this stuff is probably more security blanket than anything–users who are concerned about safety will be glad to know it’s there even if they don’t use it. And I did miss one feature that Firefox 3.1 sports–the ability to erase browser history for only a selected period of time, like the last hour or day. Overall, though, IE 8’s security features seem well done. IE does remain a sexier target for hackers than other browsers though, simply because there are so many copies of it out there to attack; choosing a browser other than IE simply to maintain a lower profile on the Net is still a defensible security strategy.

On the stability front, IE 8 now isolates tabs, so one unstable page doesn’t bring the whole browser down, and it offers crash recovery, which attempts to restore the tabs you were using before the browser croaked. I’m pleased to report that RC1 is robust enough on the PC I’ve been using it on that I haven’t had the opportunity to see either of these features in action.

Compatibility. People who build Web sites have sacrificed an unimaginable amount of time to dealing with the way earlier versions of Internet Explorer tended to render Web pages in idiosyncratic ways that were at odds with the ways that Web standards such as HTML and CSS defined things. Few designers couldn’t ignore an 800-pound gorilla like Microsoft’s browser, so they tried to build sites that would work properly in IE and in more standards-obedient browsers such as Firefox and Safari. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. But it made the Web a messier, less consistent place.

Microsoft says that IE 8 is designed to be as standards-compliant as possible–which means that it’ll render pages in a manner that has more in common with other modern browsers than it does with earlier incarnations of IE. Unintended side effect: Some sites that work just fine in IE 7 misbehave in IE 8. The new browser responds to this with something called Compatibility View: Click an icon that’s supposed to look like a broken page–although it makes me think of the pattern on Charlie Brown’s shirt–and it renders them as if it were IE 7. (You can also choose to have IE 8 decide on its own which sites it should display in Compatibility View, working from a list of ones that will benefit from it.)

As far as I can tell, you can only apply Compatibility View to an entire site, not a subsection: When Yahoo Mail squawked about the fact I was using IE 8 and I turned on Compatibility View, IE applied it to all of Yahoo:

Internet Explorer 8 Compatibility

On one hand, it’s kind of sad that users need to give even a nanosecond of thought to a Web browser’s compatibility with the Web. On the other, issues created by earlier versions of IE are sort of like land mines–they’re still hidden everywhere around the Web, and the best that IE 8 can do is try to diffuse them before they blow up in anyone’s face. Which it does. But the Web will be a better place when every browser simply displays Web content in the manner it’s meant to be displayed.

Extensibility. Firefox, IE’s most formidable current rival, has built its success in part on the thousands of add-ons that let you reinvent the browser to your liking. IE has some third-party plug-ins and toolbars, plus the new Accelerators and Web Slices, and there’s a new Web site that catalogs them. Overall, though, IE is nowhere near as customizable as Firefox. Microsoft’s Hachamovitch told me that the company thinks it’s more important to build the most important features directly into the browser. I take that as additional evidence that it’s ceding hardcore browser tweakers to Firefox and focusing its energies on satisfying more casual types.

Performance. I hesitate to even bring up benchmarks, since they often tell you very little about how quick a product feels.  But given the energy that several IE rivals are putting into speeding up their JavaScript processing to make them better containers for Web-based applications such as Gmail, Google Maps, Facebook, Meebo, and much more, I was curious about IE 8’s JavaScript performance. So I tested it and other browsers (including a beta of the next version of Firefox and an alpha of the next Opera) using SunSpider, a widely-used JavaScript benchmark created by Apple’s WebKit rendering-engine team.

I ran these tests on a Lenovo ThinkPad Sl300 with a 1.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 2GB of RAM running Windows Vista SP1. Lower numbers are better, and these are all in milliseconds:

Internet Explorer 8 RC1: 15618.6ms
Opera 10 Alpha Build 1139:
Safari 3.1.2:
Mozilla Firefox 3.1b2 Beta:
Google Chrome 3422.6:

Looks like the attention that Mozilla and Google have been paying to souping up JavaScript has paid off. In the form of impressive SunSpider results, at least.

Again, these numbers reflect only one aspect of IE and don’t mean you’ll find it sluggish. (In the limited time I’ve spent with RC1, its performance didn’t make an impression on me one way or another, with one exception: It starts up a lot faster than Firefox.) For the record, Microsoft says it did a significant overhaul to make IE 8 zippier than IE 7. But Hachamovitch told me that the company is most interested in usability refinements that help users do common tasks with fewer clicks. But here’s a prediction: IE 9, when it shows up, will focus on under-the-hood improvements designed to make the fancy Web-based applications of today (and tomorrow) work better.

The bottom line. I want to wait until the final versions of IE 8 and Firefox 3.1 arrive before I attempt to come to any definitive conclusions about the state of the browser race. But here’s my provisional take: IE 8 is a respectable Web browser, but one that still feels cluttered compared to every other major rival except Opera. If you use and like IE 7, IE 8 is a pleasing–though not world-changing–upgrade. If you’re still using Internet Explorer 6 (as about 30% of Technologizer readers who use IE are) and want to stick with a Microsoftian browser, I beseech you: PLEASE upgrade to IE 8.  And if you’re a happy user of another browser, you probably won’t find anything in IE 8 that’ll convince you to switch–although there’s no harm in checking it out just to make sure.

Wild card: If an array of major sites roll out Accelerators and Web Slices, these two features could turn into meaningful arguments in favor of using Microsoft’s browser.

Me? More than usual these days, I’m a happy browser-hopper: I’ve been using Firefox 3.1, Flock, Safari, and sometimes Opera 10.0 alpha almost interchangeably lately–and IE 8 and Chrome as well, when I’m on a Windows computer rather than a Mac (which is around a quarter of the time). More than ever, you can do what you need to do on the Web with any browser that happens to be handy. That’s good news for everyone who uses the Web–and a challenge for Microsoft or anyone else who hopes to design a browser that’ll stand out from the crowd…



Read more: , ,

0 Comments For This Post

2 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. IE 8 Web Slices: Great Idea! Mediocre Execution! | Technologizer Says:

    […] when I reviewed the RC1 version of IE 8, I said that Web Slices were an intriguing idea, but that they didn’t live up to their […]

  2. Internet Explorer 9: Microsoft’s Browser Gets Back in the Game Says:

    […] that the world needed a major new version of Internet Explorer at all. Then it released IE7 and IE8–bland updates that felt like they existed in a parallel universe of their own rather than the […]